My Mom called me from Arizona last night to tell me that my Dad had died that afternoon as he was taking a nap. He was 94, and they had been married 59 years. Although he had been vigorous until a few months ago, and was clear in the head to the end, recently he had become frail. I was not surprised to hear the news, but it still hit me, and especially my Mom, hard. My parents had hoped in the next month or two to get up here to Iowa, where my wife and I and their only grandkids live (I’m an only child), but it will now only be Mom making the move. The picture above shows my Dad when he was 86, with grandkids Chloe and Will. Will’s twin brother John is severely autistic, and it was hard on the spur of the moment to find a good photo of him with “Opa,” as my Dad was known to the grandkids (I’ll keep looking).
I only mentioned my Dad’s passing to a handful of people, but it seems that word has been getting around among friends and colleagues, and people are being so very kind. I therefore wanted to put up something about him when people express their good wishes and perhaps want to know something of his life. As it is, it’s not clear when we will be able to have a proper funeral service for him. (Update: A graveside service was held Friday, October 27th at Oakwood Cemetery in Pella, Iowa.) My parents had retired to Arizona back in 1992 (Green Valley, south of Tucson). Their move to Arizona was part of a “migration” of friends from the Chicago area who decided to retire down in Arizona, but most of those friends are now dead. Mom didn’t want Dad buried in Tucson, nor at a veteran’s cemetery in Phoenix, so his body is being moved to Iowa while my Mom tries to sort things out in Arizona before getting up here.
William Joseph Dembski (July 1, 1923 — October 17, 2017) had a long and good life. To say that he had a good life, however, is to understand that a good life is one that ends well, not necessarily one that starts out well. My Dad was the fourth child, in as many years, of Mary and Boleslav Dembski. My grandmother suffered severe post-partum depression after delivering my Dad. He was the unfavored child, and it didn’t help that he, of the four siblings, most looked like his father, who was a philanderer, and left the family in 1930 to claim his inheritance in Poland.
With the Great Depression in full swing, my Dad was selling newspapers on the streets of Chicago at age 7. One time he got hit by a car and his body was tossed, unconscious, onto the grass. But he was all right (guardian angels?). A year later the hit-and-run driver identified himself, bought a newspaper, and gave my Dad a nickel tip for his inconvenience! (Or was it that he gave my Dad a nickel for a two-cent newspaper and had him keep the change? It was one or the other.)
When his brother Walter, who was one year older than my Dad, died in 1932 of a ruptured appendix, my grandfather sent my grandmother $20. Generous of him. There are pictures of my Dad’s father walking his German shepherd, accompanied by his mistress, on his estate in Poland. Only when Hitler started making threatening noises did he leave Poland and come back to the U.S., at which point he begged my grandmother to take him back, which she did, only to invite more unhappiness into her life.
After being a newspaper boy, my Dad worked as a pin boy in a bowling alley, setting up the pins by hand with a rack (this was in the mid or late 1930s, before bowling alleys were automated). One benefit of working as a pin boy is that my Dad’s back became incredibly strong — he never had back problems. Before World War II, he was working in a warehouse, moving boxes, for Montgomery Ward. He had to drop out of high school to support the family.
With war looming, he went to enlist in the Marines with his buddy Bob Gold. But Bob had a dead tooth, and the Marines didn’t want anything but perfect specimens to grind up on the beaches of Guadalcanal and Normandy, so they refused to accept Bob, though they did accept my Dad. Because my Dad was not yet 18 (at least that’s the reason I remember), he had to get permission from his parents to enlist. When Bob was refused, my Dad’s reaction was “screw it, if the Marines won’t accept Bob, then forget about becoming a Marine.” As it is, my Dad had watched films about WWI, showing rat-infested trenches, so instead he joined the Navy. He figured the ship might go down, but at least he’d have a clean place to sleep at night. Bob’s dead tooth probably saved my Dad’s life. I knew one ex-Marine my Dad’s age where the survival rate of his unit was around 1%.
My Dad was assigned convoy duty in the North Atlantic on a destroyer escort. He was a signalman. I know he told me the ship’s name and number, but I can’t recall it. His ship was credited with sinking a German U-boat. Reflecting on his years of service in World War II, I’m struck by life’s contingencies and how easily things could be different — completely different. My Dad told me that once he was on shore leave in London and he was about to step into the street when a hand pulled him back (guardian angel again?). Without that hand pulling him back, he would have been flattened by a London cab (my Dad wasn’t watching himself and wasn’t used to traffic driving on the left). At the end of the war, his ship was called in for repairs. The ship that replaced his was sunk by a U-boat. How easily his life may have been lost. How easily he might never have met my mother. How easily I might not be here …
My Dad got out of the service in 1946. Because of the G.I. Bill, he was able to finish high school in less than a year (he had left after his sophomore year) and then went to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana to begin college. He got to room with someone who came from wealth and who had a wonderful record collection, which introduced my Dad to classical music, which he loved. My Dad also came to love the academic life. He did his bachelor’s in biology, then got a master’s in education and also a master’s in biology. Next he was teaching high school in the Chicago area (he taught for one year in Libertyville, where the principal of the high school there boasted about having expelled Marlon Brando — according to Wikipedia, Brando was expelled for riding his motorcycle through the high school corridors!).
All this time my Dad was single. Teaching took a lot out of him, and he also had his mother to take care of, who was becoming psychotic (in the true sense of the word) and in the end needed to be institutionalized. In 1957 he had the opportunity to go to Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship. Actually, he had planned to go in 1956, but his mother needed too much care just then. One of my Dad’s friends told him, in applying for the Fulbright grant, not to apply to Heidelberg, because everyone wanted to go there, but to apply instead for the university in a town called Erlangen. My Dad’s friend (Robert Corley, who later was a dean at the University of Illinois’s Chicago campus) had been stationed there after the war. He thought my Dad would have a much better chance of getting the Fulbright if he put down Erlangen. He was right. And because of it he met my mother there in 1957, Ursula Armbruster, a seamstress living with her parents. Had he gone in 1956, he wouldn’t have met her because she spent that year elsewhere.
I came along in 1960, my parents having moved to Chicago. My Dad during those years was teaching at the University of Illinois’s Navy Pier Campus. His colleagues were encouraging him to get a PhD, but even with his two graduate degrees, getting a PhD here in the U.S. would have taken still another master’s degree, so he decided instead to go back to the university in Erlangen where he had done his Fulbright scholarship. It was just quicker to get into research and finish a doctorate in Germany, at least for him. It’s hard to believe, but my parents saved up $10,000, and in 1963, when my Dad was 40, moved to Germany for three and a half years, even buying a brand new VW Bug, while my Dad worked on his D.Sc. in biology. They lived on the $10,000 until early in 1967.
When he came back to the U.S., the academic job market had changed radically, making it much harder for someone like him to break into a research university. It especially didn’t help that he was in his mid 40s seeking a junior faculty position. So he ended up teaching at the City Colleges of Chicago from the time we returned from Germany in 1967 till his retirement. The City Colleges of Chicago were rife with racial tension and had low academic standards (I think there was even an open door policy if you were over a certain age). My Dad would complain quite a bit about students bilking the system, students who in some cases had better watches and shoes than him because they would impregnate single women and collect a cut of the welfare benefits. There was lots of abuse of the system by students, faculty, unions, and administration.
But for all his complaints about teaching for the City Colleges of Chicago, he never became a cynic. He was always kind and took a real interest in students. Indeed, my mother would marvel how often people would recognize him on the street and sing his praises for being a wonderful teacher. He also had a playful streak. One time, four foreign students from the same country had all not taken an exam at the appointed time. When they rescheduled it and took it in the biology faculty office (it was a big area where all the biology faculty had desks, but no one had an office to oneself), he assigned them to four desks at different corners of the room. As the exam progressed, they started speaking to one another in their foreign language (presumably trying to help each other with answers). But my Dad was unconcerned. Finally, one of the students taking the exam blurted out “These are four different exams!” Yes, they were.
Raised in a blue-collar Polish neighborhood in Chicago, my Dad knew all the ethnic slurs. But I marvel at how free of real prejudice he was, a fact recognized by others. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated (1968) and my Dad was teaching at the overwhelmingly black Wilson campus of the City Colleges of Chicago (later renamed Kennedy-King campus), it was a black student who loved him dearly and called him at home, urging him not to come to campus until things calmed down (perhaps thereby saving his life). During that time we regularly had Thanksgiving on Chicago’s South Side with a beautiful elderly black couple. But the ethnicity of his students and those who loved him extended much further. Two Palestinian students thought the world of him and urged that he and his family visit the Middle Eastern restaurant at which they were waiters (the old Casbah on Diversey Pkwy — I don’t think it exists any longer). They always insisted on covering the cost. The food and service were great. And just to be clear, he also had good Jewish friends.
My Dad always had a soft spot for people in need. Panhandlers would often get something from him. But he would also listen to strangers in their need. I recall one incident where a man couldn’t get to work because he had some crucial item for work in a locker and the person owning the locker wouldn’t return the item until the locker fee was paid for (it was a catch 22 — can’t work without what’s in the locker, but can’t get what’s in the locker without working and getting paid). So my Dad paid the locker fee, but not without calling on the carpet the person who owned the locker.
By the standards of this world, my Dad may seem not to have accomplished all that much. He had exactly one publication (his doctoral work on sperm dimorphism in snails). He never made a ton of money. And no streets are likely to be named after him. Yet in my book he looms large. I take Jesus’ parable of the talents seriously, and the challenge there is to make the most of what you’ve been given. My Dad was dealt a pretty poor hand early in life, but I would say he played it as well as anyone could have played it. I know he would have enjoyed being a biology professor, like his mentor at the University of Illinois, Harry J. Fuller, teaching and doing research at a good university. But it was not to be.
His gift was to encourage others. I never had the sense in him of envy or wanting to diminish others so that he could seem bigger or better. Nor did his own obstacles earlier in life cause him to want others to experience those obstacles as a kind of lesson or punishment. My Dad had to work his way through college and university (summer jobs included being a garbageman), but when it came time for me to go to college, he urged me to stay focused on my studies and avoid anything that would keep me from giving them my full attention. He and my Mom made this possible, and I think I can honestly say that I did not disappoint or misuse their generosity. As for my Mom, he encouraged her to become an art dealer (despite her natural shyness), and together they were able to put together a thriving business buying and selling antique oil paintings in Europe and the U.S.
I’m not sure he consciously saw his role in life as a facilitator (in the good sense of that word!), helping others to find their way and even to exceed him in accomplishment. But it’s a role he fell into naturally, and he found contentment in it.
I last saw my Dad when I took him and my Mom to the Des Moines airport in June of 2016. My parents spent a week with us, and they were able to catch some high school softball and baseball games of my daughter Chloe and son Will (pictured above). I spoke to my Dad a few days before his death. The conversation seemed more tender than usual and we assured each other of our love. I tried calling him a few hours before his death, but he was at lunch with my Mom. He died at the Santa Rita Nursing and Rehab Center shortly afterward, while taking his afternoon nap.
Dad closed his life on earth as a Christian, with faith in his savior Jesus, a faith shared by Mom and me. Though this time is emotionally difficult for both her and me, we live in hope of a new heaven and new earth untainted by the sin and evil of this world, and yet in which all the good of this world will be remembered and amplified through eternity. This world is a better and richer place because of my Dad. I’m proud to be his son and trust to be united with him again.